Hackney Windrush Commission review: a sublime, spectacular honouring of a generation and their descendants

A review by Lucy Davies for London’s Telegraph.

On a baking-hot afternoon in Hackney, two colossal, gleaming black statues are being winched into place. They are sculptures by the British artist Thomas J Price, and, once drilled into the ground outside the east-London borough’s Town Hall, will be a permanent public artwork honouring the Windrush generation and their descendants. The event has generated a curious crowd. Price can hardly stop for breath with all the questions. 

Statues and race make for a heavily politicised, and potentially deadening context, but Warm Shores is sublime. The figures, a young adult male and an older woman, are fashioned from a glossy, patina-cloaked bronze, and represent not individuals but a rich amalgam of the African-Caribbean diaspora. 

To make them, Price used 3D scans to blend the features, clothing and stances of 30 Hackney residents who had a personal connection to Windrush – some were in the original 1948-1971 migrations, others had parents or grandparents who were. Not every respondent appears physically in the final work, but the conversations Price had with each of them during the process have contributed to its poignant, stirring tone.

That collaborative approach, which Price hopes will ensure residents feel a sense of ownership over the work, was integral to his winning the Hackney Windrush commission (alongside Montserrat-born British sculptor Veronica Ryan, whose work was unveiled in nearby Mare Street in 2021) after a two-year consultation process. The borough, which established the commission with Create London, has a long history of offering refuge to migrants, and had wanted to make that solidarity visible in permanent form.

And what form. At 8.7ft and 9ft, Price’s sculptures are not just beautiful, but spectacular. Such size, and their being bronze – a material emphatically linked to representations of power – toys noisily with notions of status and authority, but even though the figures take up, and really claim their space, the honesty of their depiction, together with their everyday clothing, also makes them seem weirdly vulnerable.

Thomas J Price's Warm Shores
Thomas J Price’s Warm Shores 

Price has foregone plinths, which encourages you to walk around the figures – and it’s worth doing so, because their expressions respond by morphing cleverly from contemplative, to noble, to beatific. The ambiguity of that, and their rumpled, contemporary clothing will encourage viewers to perhaps see themselves in the work. The sculpture is vehemently about what Windrush means to Britain today.

Warm Shores was unveiled on National Windrush Day, the anniversary of the arrival of African-Caribbean immigrants to Britain on MV Empire Windrush, which docked in Tilbury on June 22 1948, to help fill post-war UK labour shortages. Also unveiled today was a government-commissioned Windrush monument by the Jamaican artist Basil Watson, at London’s Waterloo station. 

A close-up of one of the two bronze figures outside the Hackney Town Hall
A close-up of one of the two bronze figures outside the Hackney Town Hall 

The statue, though, which presents a man, woman and child in their “Sunday best” climbing a pile of suitcases, has angered the Windrush Foundation, who accused the government of “hijacking” Windrush and “treating the Caribbean community like children” by not consulting them.

Price, who was born in south London in 1981, who studied at Chelsea College of Art and the Royal College of Art, and who has showed previously at the National Portrait Gallery and Yorkshire Sculpture Park, happens to be a Windrush descendant himself: his Jamaican grandmother came to Britain as a nurse. 

He has clearly delved deep into that part of his story, and poured thought, toil and inspiration into its telling, because Warm Shores works on every level: as an evocation, as education, and as an honouring. Seeing it, you realise its lack elsewhere, and that is shocking.

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